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Ray Benson: It Wouldn't Be Texas Without Czechs

Posted by: Petr Mecir

photo: CountryZone.net
Interviews 04/16/2012

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been carrying the torch for western swing for over 40 years now. I met with Ray on the grandiose tour of the travelling International Festival of Country Music in Mannheim, Germany. It was a real thrill to interview Ray about his memories of performing in former Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism in 1988 as well as the heritage of early Czech immigrants in Central Texas.

I've been always impressed by the cool name of your band. Was the original idea connected with the western swing ain't dead catch phrase from the beginning?


"No, that came afterwards. The title was just a joke. How do you say it in Czech?


Asleep at the wheel? That would be 'spící za volantem'.


"You see, it's just an idiom."


You started out in 1969. Do you know if Bob Wills ever saw your show or heard your music?


"Yes, he heard the record and we met him once. It's a very interesting story. He was making what was to be his last recording, which was called For The Last Time on the United Artists records and asked us to come visit. So we went out there, they introduced us and he was in a wheel chair, because he was very sick. They said you can talk to him tomorrow. He went back to his hotel, that night he had a stroke and went to coma and died two years later, so we never spoke to him."


Oh well, but at least he heard you play.


"Yeah, our first record was one of his songs and he heard this young group and what they told me was he liked it. But never talked to him."


Tell me something about the musical. I heard just some tidbits about it and I would love to see it. Have you taped the show?


"No, just little portions of it but we would like to."


It would be cool if it came out on DVD.


"Yeah, we would like to."


Asleep at the WheelDo yo still do those shows?


"Yeah, not this year, maybe at the end of the year, but it costs a lot of money. Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don't."


And you're playing an artist who's on tour with Bob Wills? What's the plot of the story?


"The plot is the story I just told you and it's about the conversation, the interview I never had with Bob Wills. So the ghost of Bob Wills shows up on our bus and we talk and Jason plays the part of Bob Wills and there's a little boy who is a 10-year-old Bob Wills. And then we have 24 actors, dancers and musicians tell the whole story. It's really good."


A mutual friend of ours, Ruth Ellen Gruber, writes a lot of stuff on the influence of Wild West and western culture in Europe. What is your impression of appreciation of western swing in Europe?


"Oh, the western everything, you know, the cowboy image is very big and we know about Karl May, the author in Germany. And we've been playing, of course, for 35 years and coming to Europe whether it's the UK, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland especially. They know and they seem to like it. The western swing, I think, came as one of the last kinds of country music there, it was like bluegrass and the songs, folks like Jim Reeves and now they're getting into western swing. First time we came 35 years ago a Dutch interviewer said we were a jazz band cashing on country music (laughs). They had no idea what the hell we were, so we put on cowboy hats to make it in the country."


Well, at shows in Europe you can see those European cowboys wearing denim shirts and leather suits with fringes. They appreciate the traditional music, so western swing should be exactly what matches the musical taste here.


"We played in Denmark a couple of years ago. They had a big cowboy festival and they were all dressed up and they said 'play more of your cowboy country, not so much 'Chu Chu Boogie' and your jazz and swing stuff.' They didn't like that so much, but I think they progress."


Willie and the WheelI love the CD 'Willie and the Wheel' and it feels so natural that you did this record together. How did you feel about making this record, because you've been working with Willie for decades.


"It was a dream come true and it was everything that I hoped it would be. So, what can I say, it was a thrill."


Rumor has it there might be another album like this.


"Yeah, we already started it, but it's just a business problem with this, the label and his manager, but we hope."


You've been producing so much of beautiful stuff on so many people like Suzy Bogguss. Are you in touch with her?


"Isn't it a beautiful album, I love that record. I don't see her. She did it and disappeared, but yeah, it's a wonderful record."


Is it true that it was you who came up with the idea for Wynonna's stage name?


"Yeah, well her and her mom and me. It was a long time ago."


How old was she at the time?


"Thirteen. It was in L.A."


And Wynonna is a city or a town?


"It's a ghost town and it's WINONA, not WY. But there was an old blues singer named Wynonie Harris and Naomi heard us talking about Wynonie and she said 'you know you put an A in that and it comes Wynonna.' And I said 'yeah' and then in a song 'Route 66', there's a line 'don't forget Winona' and Winona is a little town that was on Route 66 and Naomi said 'I think I'll call Christina with the name Wynonna.' And Wynonna is one of the great singers of all time. What a wonderful voice, just glad to know them."


By this time you've won 9 Grammy Awards...

Suzzy Bogguss - Swing


"Yeah, whatever."


How is it possible to catch the attention of the Academy because there are thousands of records coming out every year?


"We did pretty well and we won 6 of them for the instrumentals with Chet Atkins and Vince Gill, you know, it's not so much about the popular. But we did win a vocal award, me and Lyle Lovett singing a song."


One of my very favorite artists from Austin is Rick Trevino. Have you worked with him?


"Oh yeah, many times. He appears with us. We go come up and him and Milton do 4 songs with us, a very good singer."


I've been to Texas and I know the shows can get pretty wild. What was the most ridiculous or the most awkward item that you've ever been asked to sign?


"Actually the most awkward was a man that had my face tatooed on his back. And he asked me to sign so he could then tatoo my signature. That's the weirdest. Bless his heart"


You played at the Intercountry Festival in Prague...


"Yes, we played with the Bellamy Brothers in 1988, that's when we went to Prague."


What was your impression of Prague?


"Oh, it was just wonderful. People were great, it was just about to become Czech and Slovakia, just coming out of the communist era. It's funny, I kept the 500 note, the koruna, because it had the communist motive. It was very interesting, because we didn't know what life was like in a communist country back then. And, of course, Czechoslovakia being the most forward thinking of the bunch then. We were able to come and play, but still the party, we played the show and you could see the first thirty rows were people with gray suits."


Did you have any time sightseing?


"Oh, a lot of time. We walked up and down the Wenceslas Square, where the revolution was."

"You know who Adolph Hofner was? When I came to Czechoslovakia in '88, a man said 'do you know Adolph Hofner?' and I said 'yeah'. Adolph Hofner was an old western swing guy who was Czech and he sang songs in Czech because you know in Texas there's lots of Czechs. He was a western swing cowboy and he sang and recorded a number of western Czech songs. Go find it: Adolph Hofner. He was from San Antonio, he and his brother, and they were born in Texas and their parents were from Czechoslovakia. They had a big Czech fest, they made the kolaches."

"There are Bohemians, Moravians, Germans, but the big imigration of Czechs, I don't know why, that was in Central Texas up to Waco. And they had a fraternal organization called SPJST, the initials for 5 Czech words. That's why Texas is how it is. The dances and the traditional folk dances that Texans made their own from the Czech and German cultures. And beer! They brought beer with them."

"The influence of Czech and Eastern European people in Texas is huge. It wouldn't be Texas without Czechs and we know it, because they also brought dances, music, the accordeon. And then the Mexicans took the accordeon from the German and Czech bands and made it their own."


Alright, thank you very much.

Ray Benson & Petr Mecir
(Petr Mecir & Ray Benson - Mannheim, Germany 03/04/2012)

Asleep at the Wheel - "Cherokee Maiden"

(C) Petr Mecir 2012. All rights reserved.